Today wasn't such a great day in terms of scenery, not because it wasn't there, but because most of the time it was cleverly hidden behind the pine trees of the Forestry Commission forests that line the Great Glen. Still, I can't complain; the rain that the weatherman predicted for Scotland turned out to be nothing more than a little bit of spitting around lunchtime, and I managed to walk another colossal distance with only one blister to show for it. There were no muscular traumas, no bacterial problems, no sodden bogs, no low clouds and no unpleasant surprises, but then there was no escape from the midges either.
There's very little to say about the route, which threads along the Great Glen, switching banks every now and then just to add to the variety. From South Laggan the Caledonian Canal runs for a mile before an old military road on the east bank of Loch Oich takes over. Loch Oich is a pretty little loch – aren't they all? – and being only 3.5 miles long and a few hundred metres wide, its size is a refreshing change after the wide vistas of Loch Lochy.
So it's not long before the Caledonian Canal takes over again, complete with yachts and motorboats chugging along the six flat miles to Fort Augustus, where all of a sudden the tourist circus kicks in. Fort Augustus is a picturesque village centred around a staircase of five locks, and as the southern gateway to Loch Ness it's a popular stopover on the tourist circuit. I wandered into the centre and tried to dodge the colourful crowds as they stared at the water traffic slowly shuffling through the locks, and for a minute I wondered where on earth everyone had come from, because on the map Fort Augustus is not a large place. But round the corner I discovered a whole flotilla of coaches, hidden in a car park that was almost as large as the village itself; engines purred as drivers sat reading their papers, waiting for their cargo to return from their allotted 15 minutes of lock watching. After hours of silent walking along the lochs and towpaths the onslaught of mass tourism was a bit of a shock to the system; I loved it.
I should have hung around in Fort Augustus to have my lunch because watching the watchers was better than television, but I thought I'd better put another couple of miles on the clock before stopping for a bite to eat. This turned out to be a bad move, because the whole of the rest of the walk plods through pine forest, and if there's one thing that pine forests have in buckets, it's midges. I got lacerated, again, and for the umpteenth time I marvelled at how the locals manage to put up with it. Hats off to them; I can't handle the little bastards, even with the power of Dettol and baby oil, and I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I couldn't live in any part of Scotland that's home to midges...
But hey, I've just arrived at Loch Ness! This is quite an event, if only because Loch Ness is one of the few places on this whole walk that absolutely everyone has heard of. Of course there's the myth of the Loch Ness monster, not to mention the beauty of the loch itself, but to me the most impressive thing about Loch Ness is its sheer size. It's by far the biggest body of fresh water in Britain – Loch Lomond has the biggest surface area, but Loch Ness has a much higher volume – and its deepest point is so far down that you could drop the Empire State Building into the loch and it would sink out of sight. That might be impressive, but it's not my favourite fact about Loch Ness. This one, however, is: if you took all the lakes and reservoirs in England and Wales and tipped them into an empty Loch Ness, then they wouldn't fill it up. Loch Ness is an awfully big lake.
Unfortunately you don't get to see much of it from the Great Glen Way, because the trail follows forest tracks, and forest tracks, by their nature, tend to be surrounded by trees. Every now and then you get a break in the growth and the loch swims into view, an impressive expanse of deep blue water with the prevailing westerly winds chopping up the surface into ripples that break as gentle waves on the shore; it's a pretty place, and the opposite shore of the loch, to the east, is totally devoid of roads, houses and other signs of humanity. OK, so a lot of the forests are man-made and are criss-crossed by fire breaks that wouldn't naturally be there, but it's great to look over the loch and see nothing but water, wilderness and the odd yacht gliding silently along the surface.
Sadly these tantalising views are all too few and far between, so the walk soon turns into a plod, which turns into a slog, which turns into a bit of a bore. I met some nice people, I stopped whenever there was the hint of a view and I didn't find the walking too taxing, but by the time I reached Invermoriston I was more than a little jaded with the thought of yet more pine forest walking.
The problem is that instead of finding a place in Invermoriston, I'm staying at Loch Ness Youth Hostel, three miles further along the loch shore in a tiny hamlet called Alltsigh. I know why I decided to stay here instead of Invermoriston; it's because it meant I had to make one less phone call when sorting out my accommodation, and as I have a pathological fear of using the phone, the Scottish Youth Hostel Association's central reservation service seemed like a good way of keeping the number of phone calls down. But when I arrived in Invermoriston I realised that I still had a further three miles of steep hill walking go to the hostel, and to add to the thrill Loch Ness Youth Hostel is in the middle of nowhere, with only a couple of houses and a very big loch to look at. There is most definitely no pub, unlike in Invermoriston.
'Mark, I've been waiting for you!' cried the Glenmoriston Arms as I walked round the corner and into the glare of its happy pub sign. I pretended not to hear it.
'Hey, come in old friend,' it purred. 'You know you want a nice pint of hoppy, fruity real ale. It'll set you up for the last few miles, and you could do with taking the weight off your feet.'
'Go away,' I said. 'If I have a beer, I'll fall asleep.'
'Nonsense,' said the pub. 'Think of all the calories it'll give you – it'll sort you out good and proper. And it'll help dull the pain of that nasty blister you've got on your right foot. I know you're being brave about it, but it must really hurt. Go on, have a pint. Just one. You know it makes sense.'
'Ah, stop it!' I yelled and looked at the map, which clearly showed a super-steep climb just after the village centre, followed by three miles of plodding along rocky, tree-lined forestry tracks. 'I can't, I just can't.'
'Oh, come on,' he continued. 'It never stopped you back in the Midlands. Remember the Severn? Don't you want a nice cool pint like you did back then? I might even have Fraoch Heather Ale in here – remember Heather Ale, Mark?'
'Oh, that's below the belt!' I screamed, remembering the last time I'd had Heather Ale. A few years ago Peta and I had booked ourselves into a perfectly romantic spot that combined excellent food, a cosy real fire, a luxurious room with a massive bathtub and a view from the bedroom window of the Isle of Skye, and while the rain poured down outside and the fire crackled right beside us, we drank the joint dry of bottled Heather Ale. It's a delightful beer, made from heather instead of hops, and I've been on the lookout for it ever since I entered Scotland. The thought of finding it here...
'No, I can't have a beer,' I told the pub, and ran for the sign that said 'Tea Room' instead. And there, in the fridge of the tea room, were plenty of bottles of Heather Ale, so I sat with my back to them and ordered a pot of tea and a slice of cake, trying not to listen to the voices of Invermoriston, calling me to the pub.
God, the Youth Hostel was boring, but at least I got there without giving in. I'm rather proud of myself, even if I can still hear the Glenmoriston Arms on the breeze...